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5 Things to Know About Blackness Is...

MN Black Theatre Circle's virtual festival is live this weekend with all types of performing arts.

A still from one of the opening ceremonies of Blackness Is... featuring Camrin King and Domino D'Lorion. Photo by Tom Wallace.

As Minnesota comes up to the anniversary of George Floyd's murder, a collective of artists is celebrating Black culture. MN Black Theatre Circle, which was founded last summer, is partnering with the Guthrie Theater to bring the completely free and online festival, Blackness Is…, a three-day event May 21 to 23, featuring 13 Black artists performing plays, songs, and more. Before it kicked off, I was able to chat with the collective's marketing committee lead Vanessa Brooke Agnes (a.k.a. Hennepin Theatre Trust's art education manager and the founding artistic director of Dark Muse arts) to get some insight on both the organization and the festival. Here's what I learned:

1) MN Black Theatre Circle is a multigenerational cohort borne out of the social justice movement.

After George Floyd's murder, Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj wanted to do more than release a racial equity statement, Agnes says. Instead, he reached out to a multigenerational cohort of artists, who in turn reached out to some of their contacts, and together they started a conversation about how to empower Black liberation and amplify Black voices. Make no mistake, though: MN Black Theatre Circle is its own entity, and the Guthrie Theater is acting as a supporting partner for this festival.

2) Some works were created for the festival, and others were adapted for the virtual platform. Either way, there's plenty of variety.

Blackness Is… is billed as a theater-inspired festival, which Agnes says allowed the project selection committee to really have freedom to showcase a multitude of mediums. Artists include figure skater and modern dancer Deneane Richburg of Brown Body, theater maker Ricardo Beaird, dancer Averie Mitchell-Brown (recently seen in Mixtape IV), and dancer/musician Tearra Oso. (I actually got to see a sneak peek of Oso's Afro Puerto Rican music performance, and between the hand drums and the vocal harmonies, her quartet cast a pulsating spell.)

While some of the pieces may be inspired by George Floyd and his legacy, the performances touch on all aspects of Blackness. Some may be about the traumas and injustice, but others will focus on what the festival's rotating website banner proclaims: Blackness is love, legacy, light, life, and power.

3) Although the festival is virtual, it has plenty of engagement.

This weekend, you can check out two public workshops and a cadre of Zoom talk backs over the weekend (schedule and meeting links here). For those who haven't partaken in Brian Bose's dance workshop "Slay!" before, you can expect to move and let loose. The other workshop is focused on costume design, led by Trevor Bowen (think costumes from 2020's "Redwood" at the Jungle or "Spamtown, U.S.A." at Children's Theatre Co.).

If you have a tween or teen, sign them up for one of the private youth workshops to explore art forms like hip hop and spoken word. "We really wanted to include youth and make the event for the whole family to get involved and for youth to know that Blackness is not monolithic. It's multifaceted and beautiful, and they can be a part of that," Agnes says.

4) Make sure to set your alarm for show time.

The evening programs on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday start with an opening ceremony that Agnes says reflects on the historical context of Minnesota's Black creators and may even include some bonus performances. If you really want to make a few nights of it, check out the collective's tips on how to host a virtual watch party with friends, and browse the vendors' list to order some food from a Black-owned business.

5) Blackness Is… is a finale of sorts (at least for now).

Through MN Black Theatre Circle's partnership with the Guthrie, it's been helping bring Black-centered works streamed straight to your home every month. You just might not have realized it. "Dining with the Ancestors," which was helmed by the collective's Regina Marie Williams, was one performance galvanized by their discussion, as are the still-streaming "Stoopidity,""Missing Mississippi Moons," and Agnes' "The Uprising Vol. II: Black HERStory."

"We really came together to present these theatrical projects," Agnes says, "and [Blackness Is…] is the culmination. It's really exciting to have this bookend to the work we've been doing all year, but we really are committed to bringing together Black Minnesota theater artists and widening our circle. And yes, I hope that includes presenting a festival again next year, working with perhaps other theater companies, and offering other programming if that's something we have capacity for."


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